Robotics at CES 2016: The Second Robotics Age is Here

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CES is all about spotting upcoming trends in technology, and robotics is clearly one such area, with the industry now entering an exciting new phase.  As covered in Tractica’s recently published report on Consumer Robotics, this revolutionary phase is well and truly underway. This year at CES, there was a 71% growth in robotics-related exhibition space compared to 2015, which is phenomenal and gives you an idea of the level of innovation and activity in this market. Robotics is also very wide ranging, and it is not hard to argue that many of the automobile exhibits showing driverless cars, or unmanned systems booths featuring drones, should also be counted under the robotics umbrella. On the other hand, the official robotics marketplace at the Tech West venue included vacuum robots, family robots, toy robots, telepresence robots, and other types of enterprise and service robots.

Toy and Educational Robots Take the Limelight

If one robotics segment really outshone the others at CES, it was toy and educational robots. One part of the trend is being driven by Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) education with these robots used as tools for teaching kids how to code.  Lego, which is famous for its Mindstorms robotics kits that are targeted at kids age 11 and older, launched a new Lego Education WeDo 2.0 solution for younger kids combining Lego blocks with smart software-based educational tools. Other solutions like Robo Wunderkind from StartRobo, Code-A-Pillar from Fisher Price, CellRobot from KEYi Technology Inc., SK Telecom’s Smart Robot Albert, and even Sphero SPRK edition are also aimed at helping kids with STEM education. If you are a parent of a young child, this is a fantastic time to test and experiment with some of these kits. In the meantime, some of these cool technologies are already being integrated into school curriculums. Apart from education becoming more fun, engaging, and interactive, imagine a whole generation of kids that will grow up programming and interacting with robots, so much so that owning a family robot in their adult life will become second nature.

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At the same time, there are toy robots focused purely on entertainment rather than on education. Sphero was showcasing its latest BB-8 droid being controlled by a wrist-based gesture device. WowWee, one of the largest robotics toy makers in the world, has shown that one can achieve a fairly high level of sophistication and interactivity at a low cost. WowWee’s latest AI-driven smart dog called CHiP was at the show, with a price tag of $199. While CHiP still feels mechanical, lacks emotion, and is hardly a replacement for a real pet, one can see where these toys are headed in terms of advanced robotic capabilities, with the costs of enabling those capabilities going down every year.

Consumer Robots Will Be More Conversational than Physical

It is also becoming evident that artificial intelligence-based conversational speech and voice recognition capabilities are improving faster than the physical capabilities of robots. Siri, Google Now, and Amazon Echo are all evidence that voice recognition has improved considerably in recent months. Much of this can be attributed to advances in deep learning capabilities. Amazon’s Echo, with its virtual digital assistant Alexa, has more than 30,000 reviews on the company’s website, with most of them being highly positive. Amongst the many fans of Alexa, there are some that are known to have personal feelings for the artificial intelligence, a creepy parallel to the Spike Jonze movie Her.

Physically speaking, robots have a long way to go, with the recent DARPA challenge showing how difficult it is for a robot to open a simple door. The definition of robots, especially in a consumer setting, is likely to be much more centered on voice and speech capabilities, rather than being a physical assistant. At CES, I got to attend a conference session with SoftBank’s Pepper, Buddy from Blue Frog Robotics, and Tyche from AI Brain. All of them had powerful voice recognition and conversational speech capabilities with intelligent retorts to what was being said in the panel, with Pepper even showing its sense of humor. Tyche also had an exceptional ability to form deep associations and reasoning, making it an advanced artificial intelligence tool for conversation. Family robots like Pepper, Tyche, Buddy, and even Jibo are all going to be excellent conversational companions, telling us stories and jokes, while at the same time serving as an encyclopedia and personal assistant. Voice will be the main user interface for these robots, at least in the first phase of their rollout. This also means that stationary robots without arms, legs, or even a human form (such as Amazon Echo) can be considered home or companion robots. The first family robot from China that we covered last year is another example of this trend. Or they could simply be apps that run on a smartphone like Tyche and other AI assistants like Siri and Google Now.

Autonomous Drones versus Autonomous Cars

While there was a lot of talk of autonomous cars in the automotive section at CES, it feels like autonomous drones are already here. Qualcomm had a special booth in the robotics section at CES where it was showcasing its Snapdragon powered drones capable of using advanced artificial intelligence and computer vision techniques to sense and adapt to an environment, create a 3D map, and then move from A to B without bumping into obstacles. Unlike autonomous cars, which still have to pass regulatory hurdles, not to mention learning about the millions of corner cases that exist on roads, drones have fewer obstacles to contend with when they are airborne, making them relatively simpler compared to road driving. We have already seen regulators like the FAA starting to ease restrictions around drones. CES 2016 also had the human passenger autonomous drone from Chinese company Ehang as one of the show’s highlights. This could be the beginning of a new era in personalized air transport, powered by drones, possibly even coming before fully autonomous cars.

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A Telepresence Robot for Every Office

I was very impressed with the telepresence robots at the show, including those from Double Robotics and Beam from Suitable Technologies. These devices are getting cheaper, with models starting in the $2,000-$2,500 range. It was very interesting to visit these telepresence robot booths, with robots whizzing around the show floor, their drivers conversing with you through a robot, and some of those drivers sitting far away in a different part of the world. This is the power of telepresence, as the robots are mostly at eye level and can move around with quite a bit of dexterity. In my case, I was interacting with a very cheerful woman who was talking to me from her house somewhere in the Caribbean, helping me with questions and even guiding me to the right people at the booth. Telepresence is a powerful experience that is only going to get better, and will always be an enhancement over a typical Skype call. It is hard not to see every large office have at least one of these robots on duty, with one or more remote employees using it to “beam” into work. These could even be used by employees that work from home on a certain day and would like to interact with colleagues in the office. Let’s also not forget that these robots are seeing increasing usage in universities with students being able to remotely attend class. Add sensors and haptics to these, and one could provide the sense of touch with a firm handshake, or even enhance the driver’s end view with onboard 360 vision cameras. There is a lot more product innovation that can happen with telepresence robots, and the early models are just scratching the surface.

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Personal Assistant Robots in Retail

SoftBank’s Pepper is expected to launch in the United States later this year, but is looks like there is a strong push toward in-store retail use cases where Pepper can be used as a sales assistant, or to improve brand awareness and improve customer traffic. This is a great sales channel for SoftBank, as it could lead to higher value added services and customization, as well as a great marketing tool for getting these robots into people’s homes eventually. I noticed that Pepper was particularly drawn to women rather than men, even giving them compliments, which could be a smart thing to do for a robot especially when it comes to marketing and sales. IBM’s keynote at CES featured Pepper, where Pepper introduced itself and talked about its rollout in banks and retail stores. Similarly, Pepper or other robots would be excellent with children in retail environments, making them an attractive draw in amusement parks or toy stores, for example. CES also had FUR0 from Future Robot, a company from Korea that specifically markets robots for retail scenarios. There was a lot of interest from retailers at the stand, and so don’t be surprised if you are greeted by a robot at your local shopping mall in the very near future.

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Consumer Robotics is Heading Toward a Networked Future

I attended an excellent conference session on AI, Learning and the Cloud, which was led by Dr. James Kuffner, who has worked at Google Robotics, is a professor at the Carnegie Mellon Robotics Lab, and is now part of the newly formed Toyota Research Institute (TRI). Toyota announced the creation or the TRI at CES, with a $1 billion commitment over the next 5 years. The main focus of the TRI will be autonomous cars, but there is also going to be a big push around family robots, especially those that can be used by the elderly. One of the key highlights of Dr Kuffner’s talk was related to the importance of cloud robotics, how it can allow for a shared knowledge database, can offload computing tasks, and can be used to create a skills database.

However, one of the biggest advantages of the cloud, according to Dr. Kuffner, is around testing and validation of robots. Cloud robotics can speed up the process of testing, allowing for the same test cases to be run across multiple robots, improving validation and enabling better machine learning capabilities. For example, Toyota has said that autonomous cars need to meet the trillion-mile reliability challenge, where multiple cars could upload corner test cases to the cloud, which could then be used to train object detection and avoidance systems. Similarly, family robots could tap into a skills and knowledge database in the cloud for speech recognition, voice recognition, image recognition, and other abilities. This is impossible to do both in terms of processing power as well as local memory storage. This leads to the need for better network coverage, connectivity, and reliability, something that the network operators have the power to control, expand, and improve. Therefore, if robots in the air, home, or roads have to scale, it looks impossible to do without the cloud. While there will always be a balance between local versus cloud processing and storage, it is becoming clear that it will be hard to ignore the cloud, especially in consumer robotics. Yes, in some shape or form we are headed toward a future where we will have some form artificial intelligence Skynet-like cloud to control the robots.

CES 2016 also saw the integration of cloud AI into many third party robots or even autonomous car services. IBM’s Watson is getting integrated with SoftBank’s Pepper and Furo. Amazon’s Echo is also seeing increasing integration with smart home and IoT services, with Ford showcasing its Ford Sync enabled cars using Alexa as the intelligence engine. This could be the beginning of the Skynet future, though hopefully less threatening to humanity than in the movie version.

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The First Robot MotoGP Champion

CES always produces something you have never seen, heard, or even imagined, completely blowing your mind. One such thing at this year’s show was the Yamaha Humanoid motorcycle riding robot, or the Motobot, which is being developed to improve testing of Yamaha’s motorcycles. The Motobot is expected to have AI capabilities by 2017, making it semi or fully autonomous. The day is not far when we will have robots competing with humans (or enhanced humans) in MotoGP or even Formula One car racing.

On a more serious note, Yamaha wants to replace human test drivers with robots to reduce risk to human life, but at the same time pushing their machines to the limit. I am not sure if one needs such advanced robots for crash test dummies in cars, but overall there is going to be a push for robots in industries where human life is at risk, such as construction cranes, mining, and oil rigs. So high-risk workers and racing drivers are the first ones to see their livelihoods being threatened by robots!

Vacuum Robots Could Get Pushed Over by the New Laundry Folding Robot

The technology that enables vacuum robots hasn’t advanced a lot over the last 15 years, and this CES we saw nothing to prove otherwise. Vacuum robots are in some sense becoming smarter about their environment with more sensors, LIDAR,and 360 vision capabilities, but there is only so much a vacuum robot can do.

On the other hand, CES had something much more exciting in offer with one of the first laundry folding robots in the world. I have been personally waiting for this one, and am sure so are millions of people across the world who hate the chore of folding laundry. A Japanese company called Seven Dreamers Labs showed off Laundroid, the world’s first clothes folding robot. While the company did not have a working version at the show, it plans to have something to demonstrate next year, with an integrated washing machine, where the clothes get washed, folded, and stacked in different piles automatically. Now that would be one handy robot to have around the house!

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